Joy for Wales, sorrow for N. Ireland
Late, undeserved own goal ends Northern Ireland's fine romance
REPORTING FROM PARIS
ROUND OF 16
(Gareth McAuley 75-og)
NORTHERN IRELAND 0
The problem with romance is it can break your heart.
And the manner of Northern Ireland's crushing, late defeat tore Irish hearts to shreds.
Gareth McAuley hadn't put a foot wrong all game. And then he did, horrendously so.
In his deepest dreams, the own goal will haunt him forever.
He didn't deserve it and nor did the plucky Irish, but football really is the cruellest game.
With 15 minutes left on the clock and extra-time looming in the Round-of-16 clash this morning (Singapore time), Gareth Bale swung a devastating low cross from the left.
Until that moment, the pony-tailed prancer had been a peripheral figure, his impact negligible.
But the cross was vicious and McAuley, aware of the pressure around him, swung out a boot.
The Irish had one foot in extra time. McAuley had one foot out of time and now his devastated teammates are out of the tournament.
Tears filled the terraces. The Welsh cried at reaching the quarter-finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1958.
Their opponents wept at what might have been.
Michael O'Neill's men, with half the talent and twice the tenacity, were so close, so desperately close to extending their run at Euro 2016 and giving their genuinely inspiring supporters the ending their devotion deserved.
France will desperately miss them and the party they brought to Parc des Princes long before kick-off. Welsh and Irish fans posed together for selfies, well lubricated certainly, but never belligerent.
Intriguingly, the stadium's vibrant colours replicated the respective populations of their two nations, with reds outnumbering greens by at least two to one.
A one-word din rolled down the stands, creating a blanket of noise that covered Parc des Princes, the confidence unmistakable.
Wales, Wales, Wales.
The Dragons were breathing fire before their bouncing boyos had even made it onto the pitch.
But if the Welsh brought the swagger, their opponents brought the salsa. The Irish danced in the stands from first minute to last, looking like a giggling, singing gang of green Teletubbies.
Sitting was optional throughout. It was standing room only.
Never mind the Battle of Britain. This was a battle of the bands.
Occasionally, between the musical intermissions, a game of football broke out.
Despite O'Neill's understandably conservative 4-5-1, the Irish mostly dominated, with Stuart Dallas forcing a smart save from Wayne Hennessey in the 10th minute.
Traditionally, Wales have laboured with the favourites tag and their opponents sensed their unease, pushing Jamie Ward forward to join Kyle Lafferty up front.
Hennessy's reflexes were again called upon to tip over Ward's rising drive midway through the first half, with Wales struggling to impose any authority and Bale a virtual passenger.
Northern Ireland essentially vandalised the Welsh engine room. Corry Evans displayed a limpet's tenacity, refusing to let Joe Allen go, constantly checking over his shoulder and tracking the Liverpool midfielder's runs.
Bale's horrendously over-hit free-kick, sailing over the heads of his teammates and out of play, summed up a tentative half for a side that struggled against Andorra in the qualifying campaign.
Chris Coleman's siege mentality is diluted somewhat when there is no siege.
With both nations favouring counter-attacking, there was, essentially, no attacking, with the game taking on the complexion of a mid-table English Premier League clash played out in the early season sunshine.
When the half-time whistle went, the fabulous Irish jig began again with aplomb, as if the sporadic outbreaks of football had somehow got in the way of the party.
On the pitch, both sides were seemingly engaged in an act of sabotage to prove that the expanded knockout stages really had diminished the tournament's quality.
The romantic narrative of the British underdog can only be stretched so far. At some point, the football must take precedence.
When Sam Vokes missed an open header from 12 metres, Coleman had seen enough, hauling him off for Hal Robson-Kanu.
The impact was almost immediate, with Bale resembling a legitimate threat for the first time, stinging Michael McGovern's palms with a swerving free-kick in the 58th minute.
But the Irish held on and the game threatened to drift aimlessly, rather tediously, towards extra-time.
And then McAuley's unfortunate boot killed the romance stone dead.